While these companies require all of the business savvy that drives financial success, innovation, and growth, distributors have a differentiating belief that reframes what it means to be an independent distribution company: independent distributors see their companies as platforms for their people. When I toured these independent distribution companies, I didn’t see the four walls, the racking, or the product in the warehouse—I saw a platform for personal and professional growth. And I saw people taking initiative and advantage of that platform.
People are the core ethos at the heart of distribution, and it’s the second of the seven ethos that drive the noble calling of distribution. Being people-focused enables independent distributors to attract and retain amazing talent, and those talented people are offered every opportunity for success and fulfillment.
For Mark Chirgwin the Chief Operation Officer of Bender, an HVAC & plumbing distributor fourth-generation family-owned and operated company—creating these offerings goes beyond the needs of the business. He wants to give his employees the tools they need to determine their purpose in their own lives. He strives to help his employees become better human beings—”Not only for Bender, but for your spouse, for your children, for your parents—it’s super important that we all get the tools to be a better person.” His method for supporting his staff in these goals is creating a forum where anyone in the company can voice thoughts, opinions, and concerns; holding professional development meetings and training that are open to any employee regardless of position or department; and purpose citations—formal “kudos” that each staff member can give one another as they see fit.
Mark has broken down the barriers that hierarchies create, so that each employee is recognized, supported, and valued. The purpose citations, for instance, can be given from anyone to anyone, and this means of showing value also encourages staff from all departments to recognize each other’s value. “We create this open forum where we can talk to everyone about everything,” Michael Ki, a Bender Branch Manager, explained.
The people ethos, as I’ve seen it throughout We Supply America, is about rethinking positions and roles. It’s recognizing each individual for what they contribute—their skills, their experience, their talents—and saying “How can we support you? How can we help you achieve the goals that you have for yourself?”
For Bill Condron, CEO of The Granite Group, the people ethos is his business model. The company, which distributes plumbing, heating, cooling, water, and propane supplies, has built its business model to be a durable growth engine for its people. The thought behind the business model is that having the best people and supporting them is the number one thing that will help the business grow and succeed. Bill firmly believes that all of the other goals—the “number” goals, based on revenue and expansion—will be met as a result of the investment they put into their people.
Bill recognizes that each person on the staff is integral, and even as the CEO, he is no “better” than the people on the floor “Our truck drivers are more valuable to our organization than I’ll ever be because they spend more time with customers than I ever can,” he explained. Finding and investing in their team through training programs, internal promotions, and intentional growth opportunities where employees are able to weigh in on processes and how things are done—has resulted in employees standing loyally with The Granite Group, some for decades.
One of my favorite moments of the We Supply America tour was speaking with Shelia Hamilton. Shelia has worked for The Granite Group for two decades, and for the first 17 years she was there, she was the only woman. In spite of being the only female in her location, she felt supported and encouraged to the degree that she helped get her husband, son, and daughter hired at The Granite Group as well. When I asked her what about the company was so special to her and her family, she didn’t hesitate “Best place I’ve ever worked, hands down.” she said with a smile.
Shelia explained that she is 100% supported by the leadership at The Granite Group. That they see her as her own boss, an expert at what she does, and therefore, they give her the license to adjust, change and improve processes as she sees fit. It’s this type of trust and autonomy that empowers The Granite Group employees, helping them feel important, fulfilled, and accomplished.
Shelia’s daughter, Sydney Carter, joked about taking over after her mom retires. She sees her mom as a trailblazer, and she told me that her mom is one of the people who helped make The Granite Group what it is today. Part of the people ethos is realizing that supporting your employees doesn’t mean handholding and babysitting. There is nothing more supportive than giving people the skills they need to be successful and then letting them take the reigns.
General Air, a family-owned gas and welding products supplier, is all about providing the right tools for their people. Marketing Manager, Abby Gierat explained that their mission is “helping their employees improve professionally and personally”. They offer a supportive work environment, that goes beyond thinking about the tasks of their roles. They are invested in each employee as a whole person, with a life outside of the workplace, and they want to provide resources to meet those needs.
Abby said that every benefit the company provides—from a homebuyer assistance program to marriage and parenting courses to college loan repayment programs—is designed to align with their people-centric core values. They like to say, “We are small enough to care about everyone but big enough to handle every one of our customers’ needs.” And it’s true. The employees at General Air often jokingly call it “Generous Air” because of the many ways General Air supports its staff.
Their approach really gets to the heart of the second ethos: the company provides services, offerings, and support, and they let their people choose how they want to take advantage of the resources available.
It’s important to note that while distributors provide a platform for growth, for upward career trajectories, for learning new skills and advancement—it is up to each individual to use that platform in the way that best suits them and their goals. One element of being people-focused is honoring each individual’s personal autonomy. It is up to them to decide what they need to be fulfilled and sustained. For some, that may be taking courses, moving up in the company, and taking on more responsibilities and recognition. But it is equally as honorable to choose to plant yourself firmly in the role that you enjoy and to be fulfilled by your current skill set.
I spoke with a gentleman who has been on the receiving dock of a distribution company for 31 years, and he is completely fulfilled. He’s good at what he does, he’s respected for what he does, he enjoys what he does—and he is fulfilled. He told me that he relishes the opportunity to help others understand what he does, why it’s important, and why it is enough—more than enough. All work is honorable work, and acknowledging and respecting people—supporting them as they choose their own path, is what the ethos of people is all about.